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Social Work Profession: School

If the only task of teachers was to teach the three R's, their jobs would be easy. But as we know, many factors conspire to make it difficult for some young people to make it through school—among them, poverty, substance abuse, community violence, early sexual activity and family conflicts.

School social workers pick up where teachers leave off. They are perhaps the professionals best equipped to address the social and psychological issues that can block academic progress. Through counseling, crisis intervention and prevention programs, they help young people overcome the difficulties in their lives, and as a result, give them a better chance at succeeding in school.

About 5% of the nation’s approximately half a million social workers work in the schools, primarily in public school settings. Besides helping youth with traditional academic problems, social workers aid others whose specific social, psychological, emotional or physical difficulties put them at risk for falling through the cracks. These include homeless youth, gay and lesbian youth and young people with physical or mental health disabilities.

Because social workers are trained to think of innovative solutions to complex problems, their interventions often make a strong difference for young people at risk for academic failure.

Here is one example.

A school near Indianapolis was experiencing a high dropout rate, so the school’s social worker, Peter, created a program targeting middle-school children with poor academic records and behavior problems. His aim was to catch problems early on before they evolved into more serious conduct that are often precursors to dropping out.

After studying the situation, Peter decided to create a voluntary support group that addressed issues important to achieving academic success. He asked teachers to pass out brochures detailing the program which urged interested students to sign up.

From the start, the students who signed on were involved in all aspects of the program. Their first step was to sign a “contract” agreeing to meet realistic goals for the year. One young man, for instance, agreed to raise two of his six grades which at the time were four “F's" and two “D's". A young woman who had missed many days of school agreed to cut her absentee rate by one third.

The group also met twice a week for 30-minute intervals, where they discussed topics of their choice, including vocational planning, substance abuse and teen suicide. During all of these meetings, Peter's message was consistent: You can succeed in school. Indeed, by the end of the year, more than half the youngsters had fulfilled their contracts, and the other half had made substantial improvements. Both teachers and fellow students remarked on the positive changes they saw in the youngsters.

School social workers make an impact in many other arenas as well. For instance, they have designed successful violence-prevention programs. They’ve created alternative programs for gay and lesbian youth who might otherwise leave school because of peer taunting and abuse. And they are experts at intervening in crises such as teen suicides, alcohol-related deaths or school violence. In these situations, social workers use a variety of organizational and empathic tools to help both students and the community address their grief, to heal and to move on.